Nigeria is a mess. It is a piping hot mess. It has been a mess since 1914, when Lord Lugard and his callgirl/mistress/lady-friend Flora Shaw respectively declared us a joint protectorate and gave us the name “Niger Area”. We were never a nation, we have never been “one people”. Some day, I will go into more reasons about why Nigeria is a mess. Right now though, I‘ll just share with you how I ended 2015.
The Plan and the Proposal
I am an acrobat in training. I hope to have some kind of career in the circus world, although what that will be isn’t clear yet. For now, I’m learning all I can and grabbing any opportunities that come my way. Last year, I had a plan to invite circus artists I’ve met in Europe to come and perform at the 2015 edition of the Calabar Carnival. It’s a big festival that takes place at the end of every year in Calabar (tiny town in the southeast of Nigeria). And so, on the 1st of September, 2015, I submitted a proposal to the Calabar Carnival Commission to invite seven circus artists from France to come and perform as part of the festivities.
After six uncertain weeks, we eventually got an unofficial response from an associate of the Commission. He basically said that they were interested, but that they were having problems getting their act together, and we’d get an official response rather late. This official response came on the 23rd of November, almost three months after I had sent in the proposal, and about a month before my team was supposed to come to Nigeria – I had suggested the 28th and 29th as performance dates. But then the chairman of the Commission decided he wanted to change the dates, only, he didn’t tell me what he wanted to change the dates to. And here began our problems.
The Makings of a Mess
My circus friends needed visas to travel to Nigeria. But in order to start the visa process, we needed tangible confirmation from the Commission in the form of our plane tickets. As long as they didn’t buy us those tickets, they could always back out from the agreement. In addition, applying for the visa required a visa fee of 108€, as well as a Yellow Fever vaccine which costs anywhere between 40 and 60€. Circus people are generally broke, so no one was going to pay this money without the tickets. However, in order to get the tickets, the Commission needed to make a decision about the dates. This they did on the 28th of November – they changed the dates to the 20th and 21st. However, everyone (except me) had already made travel plans for those dates since it was Christmas break. So I had to come up with an entirely new team, which I did. I completed all the paper work: compiled passport details and travel itineraries, pictures for a flier and videos for ads. I had to skip a lot of classes during this period, but I figured it would be worth it in the end. Then I waited for the Commission to purchase the plane tickets. And waited some more. Well, it wasn’t passive waiting – I sent emails every other day reminding them that the cost of tickets was increasing and space on available flights was decreasing. And each time the chairman replied with “yes, we’ll get back to you as soon as possible”.
It turns out that “as soon as possible” meant the 6th of December – 13 days before the travel date. I got a phone call Sunday evening at 8pm from the chairman saying that he’d just got out of a meeting with the current governor of Cross River, and that he’d decided to change the dates back to the original ones: the 28th and 29th of December. This was after I’d assured all my acrobat friends involved that the chairman had assured me that the dates were set. When he told me, I didn’t even get upset – what was the point? I just told him that I could not guarantee that everyone (we were 10) would be able to make it. And it turns out they couldn’t. Everyone dropped out but three (not counting myself) – and that’s only because they didn’t have any plans for Christmas and the days after. And among these three, there was a member of a trio whose two other partners could no longer make it. So what was she going to perform?
I was ready to sign off on the whole thing. Three young inexperienced acrobats was not enough, and I didn’t count because my technique leaves much to be desired. But two people were very curious about coming to visit Nigeria (I’m from there and I don’t understand why), so I stuck with it for their sake. I managed to find three other people at the last minute – two of whom were in Spain and one of whom I’d never met. Finally, on the 10th of December, the Commission, through a travel agent, bought the tickets and sent the money to reimburse us for visa and vaccine costs. The only thing left was to get the visas.
The Elusive Visa
It takes three working days to get a Nigerian visa from the embassy in Paris. However, they only accept applications on Monday and Thursday mornings. Still, the applicants themselves don’t need to show up in person for the application – a different person can hand deliver their documents and pick them up when the visas are ready. So we selected one person from the group to go to Paris and do all the legwork on everyone’s behalf.
On Thursday the 10th of December, we received the tickets and reimbursement money, but it was already crunch time. Everyone had to fast-track their applications, fees, documents etc. to Paris. But for some reason, no one sent their passports along with their application, so when our contact (I’ll call him Pierre) took the applications to the embassy, the embassy staff didn’t accept them. This was Monday the 14th of December. But there was still hope. They’d send the passports to Paris before Thursday the 17th. And they did. Everything looked good.
That afternoon, Pierre called and said that the applications were still not accepted. WHAT?! Yes, apparently, the invitation letter(s) the Carnival Commission had sent were not acceptable. It was one letter that included a list of invitees that everyone had photocopied for each application. What was required was a letter addressed to each individual.
Ok, so this one was definitely the people at the embassy just being assholes. However, I remember that I’d previously asked the chairman several times if they knew what the protocol was for visas, or if they’d contacted the embassy in France and he kept giving me evasive answers like “they know us at the embassy”.
So there we were, 9 days before the travel date, with no visas (except for Pierre, who was able to use the invitation letter). If we postponed till the 21st, we were not sure if the embassy would be open on the 24th for everyone to get their passports in time to travel. I called the chairman and told him this and his response was: “you’re not the only ones, the other foreign artists invited for the festival have not got visas either”. I wonder if this was supposed to make me feel better. I told him that it was probably time to cut everyone loose so they could make alternative plans for the holidays while there was still time. But later that day, he called me back saying that he spoke to someone in Immigration (why did he wait till the last minute?) and that the circus people should come anyways – they would get visas on arrival. I sent him a list of their names and the flights they’d be arriving on. All set, all good.
The Final Frontier
I travelled home one week ahead of everyone else (on the 19th) so I could rest, and finish working on the piece that I would present at the festival. Since I was no longer worrying about logistics, I could finally look forward to the performance. I was excited!… until the 23rd of December, when I received an email from the chairman with a list of people who’d been approved for visas on arrival. I received the email in the morning, but I wasn’t able to open the attachment on my phone. It would be much later in the day (7pm) when I would get to a cyber café to see the list…
For reasons I will probably never understand, the Calabar Carnival Commission had managed to bungle something as simple as a list of five names. They had left out three of the names, and instead replaced them with the initial group of people who were no longer coming. I pointed this out to the chairman, and he told me he’d get back to me. He did, on Christmas day, the day before my friends were supposed to travel. He told me that nothing could be done because the previous two days had been public holidays.
And that was it. After all the time invested, money spent (on international calls and express mail), and work and preparation, everything had been flushed down the toilet because an employee in the Cross River State governor’s office couldn’t copy and paste a list. Understandably, I was upset. And so were all the acrobats who found out the day before they were meant to travel that they no longer could (one of them was already on a train to Madrid where his flight was meant to depart). I conveyed our vexation to the chairman, and the conversation went something like this:
Chair: Oh, don’t be upset, these things happen, it’s just very unfortunate. We won’t blame anyone.
Me: Seriously? Because I know exactly who to blame.
Chair: Well, who would you blame?
Me: Um, you and your office who were terribly disorganized and unprofessional from the start of this project… the governor, for not being punctual or decisive about the performance schedule… the person who messed up the names…
Chair: Eh, well, this is how Nigeria works. You are thinking like a European instead of thinking like an African.
Me: What does that even mean? Incompetence is the African way of life?
Chair: …look, what you are showing me is that you can’t handle pressure.
[at this point I flipped a shit. Was he kidding? If I couldn’t handle pressure, I’d have abandoned the whole thing since November]
Me: I can handle pressure thank you very much; what I can’t handle is incompetence.
Chair: Don’t take this too seriously, it’s not a life or death situation.
Thank God for that, because if it was, we’d all be dead. I didn’t say this over the phone; instead I said it in a strongly-worded email I sent to the whole group – the acrobats and the Commission. I sent the email because the chairman refused to take responsibility and apologize to us for this colossal yet easily avoidable waste of time. He tried to make it seem as if the whole mess was the result of bad luck and when we wouldn’t accept that, he tried to pin blame on the Nigerian embassy in Paris for “not being understanding”. After I sent the email, and apologized to my circus friends for dragging them down the rabbit hole for (as it turned out) no reason, and then I mentally checked out of the whole affair.
The chairman’s words were not inaccurate – it was not a life or death situation. But that’s not the point really. This sort of thing happens all the time and everywhere in Nigeria: in private and public sectors, in small, medium and large-scale organizations. Incompetence, complacency and laziness rule the day. And few people are bothered by this state of affairs – at best, they’ll shake their heads ruefully and say “it’s sad, but that’s just how Nigeria is” and at worst they’ll argue with you saying that you’re trying to “introduce foreign/Western ideas”, like competence and good work ethic are intrinsically Western traits. Sure, when the consequences of incompetence are minimal and all that is on the line is wasted time and effort, and moderate embarrassment in front of one’s friends, it’s easy to brush it off. When the stakes are higher, and lives are involved, then you really see the problem with this country.
In December 2006, a Sosoliso flight from Abuja to Port Harcourt crashed in Port Harcourt airport. There were 103 people on board, and 61 of them were students in my secondary school. The plane crash landed on the airport’s runway due to a failed engine. At first, nothing happened, but then the plane caught fire. There were people in the airport, people who were waiting to pick up loved ones on that flight. They tried to go out and help but they were barricaded in by the police. And that was all the police did; they didn’t go out to help. Everyone watched the plane burn. No one seemed to know how to locate or contact firefighters, and when they were eventually contacted, they arrived at the scene of the crash with no water in their trucks… The police, firefighters and airport authorities let the plane burn till the fire went out on its own.
101 people died in that plane, many of them due to suffocation and smoke inhalation. 1 person survived with a broken arm, and another with severe third degree burns that were still being operated on as recently as 2 years ago. 60 of my school mates died; some of them were in my class. That did not need to happen. Yes, the plane crashed and some people may have died on impact, but if we had competent emergency rescue services, people trained and ready to do their jobs, many lives could have been saved that day. But this is Nigeria… I should probably stop thinking like a European…